Under the Radar: Marlins Sign Jorge Cantu

Brandon HeikoopSenior Analyst IJanuary 7, 2008

"I can't base my logic on proof." - Eric Cartman (South Park, 2006)

The Florida Marlins signed INF Jorge Cantu to a one year deal worth up to $600,000.

This could potentially be one of the most efficient signings of the Hot Stove League, a sign that Larry Beinfest and the Marlins ownership group know how to build and rebuild.

If only they knew how to sell some tickets or negotiate to build a new ballpark.

In any event, Jorge Cantu is my pick for this week's Under the Radar.

I'm not certain how many people recall, but Cantu hit a monster two-run home run against Canada's Jeff Francis at the World Baseball Classic. It was one of those rocket shots that looked as if it would never come back down.

But it was that tournament that I feel derailed what was looking like an otherwise promising big league career.

As a minor leaguer, Jorge Cantu went from being inconsequential to a star prospect. In 2005 John Sickels had this to say about Cantu:

"Cantu improved his hitting in 2003 in Triple-A, then broke through big-time last year. While there are hints in his track record that he could hit (doubles, occasional batting average spikes), his best attribute has always been his age-relative-to-league. Even when he was struggling in Double-A in '01 and '02, he was among the youngest players at that level. Some scouts felt he could develop into a Nomar Garciaparra type, though this was a minority opinion at the time."

At just 25 years old, Cantu is far from over the hill, and is definitely worth giving a shot to play the hot corner for a rebuilding franchise. At the very least, his glove and fielding versatility should make him a nice end-of-the-bench player.

In a 2006 article, Sickels compared Cantu and Robinson Cano:

"I rate them as even in background and intangibles. I give Cano a slight edge in tools. I give Cantu a slight edge in performance to date. I give Cano a slight edge in future projection. Overall it is very close, with Cano probably having a slight edge."

Since then, Cano has developed beyond projections, whereas Cantu has been plagued by injuries, demoted, traded and released.

In 2006, the year after Cano's explosion in the big leagues, Cantu fractured his foot, and has yet to regain the power stroke he developed in 2004.

I'm confident that despite a strong June, Cantu's foot was bothering him all season. In fact, the home run Cantu hit in April was in the second game of the season.

Obviously, 2006 was a frustrating season for Cantu, marred injuries and the eventual loss of playing time. Still, he was very motivated at the end of the season, and was saying all the right things.

The 2007 offseason saw the Devil Rays bring in Japanese power hitter Akinori Iwamura—you won't believe the power numbers he posted in Japan. After a poor spring training, Cantu began the year in Triple-A, where he was obviously disgruntled and lacking focus.

However, Cantu did begin to show an improved ability to take a walk, which is something to watch for in 2008.

Unhappy with his role, Cantu demanded a trade, and was honored with such, to the Reds. In Cincinnati, his role did not change—but the change of scenery appeared to do the trick, as Cantu saw his slugging percentage jump from .300 to .480 (cumulative organization totals).

Not having any real spot in the lineup for Cantu, the Reds released him. The Marlins wasted no time in deciding that Cantu was too good not to acquire, and signed him to a one-year deal.

Entering the 2007 season, Baseball Prospectus projected Cantu to be a four-win player worth just under $11M a year. The Marlins will pay Cantu about five percent of that for one year of his service.

Bill James projected Cantu's season with the Reds at .272/.328/.456 in only 180 at bats. Of course, that projection assumed half of his at bats would be at the Great American Launching Pad, whereas Dolphins Stadium in Miami suppresses home runs.

Great American Ballpark increases home runs by nearly 30 percent (three-year average calculated from ESPN.com); Dolphins Stadium decreases home runs by 11 percent. However, that could be made up by the great deviation in doubles and triples produced in the latter.

I anticipate that Cantu will win the starting third base job in Florida, although he has some big shoes to fill. With his strong arm, there's reason to believe Florida's infield defense will improve.

In a perfect world, Cantu is the Marlins No. 5 hitter, and provides league-average numbers from the hot corner. His versatility and contract should make him a valuable asset come the trade deadline.

This season will go a long way to rebuilding Cantu's value—and considering the number of teams who could use an upgrade at third base, he should be one of the hottest available players in the 2008-09 Hot Stove League.

Nice deal, Beinfest.


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